The city clings to the steep sides of a V-shaped canyon in the Central Highlands of Mexico. Other than a narrow strip in the bottom of the canyon, the only way to go is up. The hillsides are so steep, that much of the town can only be reached on foot. It isn’t the most convenient of locations, but that can be explained in one word: silver. The city is Guanajuato, and even though the silver barons are gone, its narrow streets, alleys, and small, picturesque plazas still make it a delightful destination.
Miners set up camp here around 1540, and the 1558 discovery of a large silver vein officially put Guanajuato (pronounced wah-nah-WHAH-toh) on the map. Although there was some gold, the mines produced astronomical amounts of silver. Estimates vary, but some experts say that from the 16-18th Centuries, Guanajuato’s mines produced a third of all the silver in the world. This silver filled the Spanish king’s coffers, and made the mine-owning families fabulously wealthy. Thanks to the silver barons’ wealth and largesse, colonial mansions and elaborate churches still dominate the center.
But not all of Guanajuato’s charms are stately and grandiose. Thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage status, most buildings in the historic center have been maintained as they were built.
The city has a wonderful, relaxed small-town feel, that we didn’t feel in either San Miguel de Allende or Morelia. A large part of the center has been closed to traffic, and small, inviting plazas are around every corner.
City residents and tourists venture out in the cool nights to the Jardin de la Unión to visit one of the upscale restaurants, hang out with their friends, or just relax on a bench.
Guanajuato is also known for its callejónes (alleys). The only way to access many of the colorful houses on the hillsides is by trudging up steep alleys and stairways.
One of these, the Callejón de Beso (Alley of the Kiss) has a legend that made it famous, because on this alley, the houses are only inches apart. The legend says that a couple of young lovers lived opposite each other, but the relationship was not to be, because she was nobility, and he was a common laborer. Inevitably the relationship was discovered, and the couple met a tragic end.
Guanajuato, like the other towns we’ve visited, is a Spanish Colonial jewel in the scenic Sierra Madre Mountains. But it has a calm, casual feel that gently pulls us out for rambles down small, intimate streets, and shaded benches that beckon for a siesta. We’re going to enjoy this place.
James & Terri